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Suh negotiations are test of Lions' budget priorities

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
The Lions have made it clear they want Ndamukong Suh back because it’s important to keep players of his caliber.

The debate over whether or not the Lions should re-sign Ndamukong Suh has raged for more than the past year, but ultimately, there are just two competing trains of thought.

First, the Lions have made it clear they want Suh back because it's important to keep players of his caliber, and he proved in 2014 he could be the centerpiece of a top NFL defense.

Just this week, the team's website had a story with defensive coordinator Teryl Austin saying he expects Suh to be back, and on Feb. 1 president Tom Lewand said on WDIV-TV there's a "very, very good chance" of reaching an agreement "in the next few weeks." If those statements didn't put the Lions on the clock immediately, Monday will be the beginning of the third week since Lewand made that comment, so if something isn't done by the end of this week, he'll have to answer for that optimism.

The other thought process on Suh is employed by many people outside the organization who think a $100 million deal would put the Lions in salary cap purgatory with wide receiver Calvin Johnson and quarterback Matthew Stafford already playing under mega deals. As good as Suh is, people think the $16 million or so his next deal will pay annually would be better spent on multiple players.

The elephant in the room, meanwhile, is the possibility of the Lions using the franchise or transition tag, which the team has gone out of its way to say remains an option. Ultimately, paying $26.9 million for one year of Suh would be incredibly foolish, but more on that later.

The people in the don't-sign-Suh camp have plenty of ammo. According to an analysis of salary cap data from spotrac.com, Seattle won the Super Bowl in 2013 while committing 24.6 percent of the $123 million salary cap to the three players with the highest cap hits on the roster — not including dead cap commitments. The percentage ranked 17th that year. In 2014, the Seahawks lost in the Super Bowl after committing 21.8 percent of the $133 million cap to its three highest cap hits, ranking 22nd.

New England advanced to the AFC Championship in 2013 with 28 percent of its total committed to its three highest cap figures, ranking ninth, and in 2014 that number was down to 22.3 percent, ranking 21st, and the Patriots won the Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, the Lions committed 38.6 percent of the cap in 2014 to Stafford, Suh and Johnson, but they did make the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Just three other teams — Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and St. Louis — had three players account for more than 30 percent of their cap in 2014, and the Buccaneers' 32.1 percent was a distant second to the Lions. In 2013, the Lions' trio accounted for 30.2 percent of the cap, ranking fifth.

Using the franchise tag on Ndamukong Suh is an option for the Lions -- a very expensive option.

Of course, how a team disperses its salary cap has as much direct impact on the outcome of games as Stafford wearing his cap backwards.

In 2013, Denver led all teams with 33.2 percent of its cap committed to three players, and the Broncos won the AFC and lost in the Super Bowl. In 2014, Indianapolis ranked 32nd with just 13.8 percent committed to its top three players, and the Colts lost to the Patriots in the AFC championship game.

Last month Lions general manager Martin Mayhew stopped short of saying the team would keep Suh at any cost, but when asked if there were consequences to re-signing him to a wealthy contract, Mayhew said there weren't many drawbacks.

"The good players tend to get paid more money," he said.

At some point, though, the Lions could be on the wrong side of the trend of teams spreading their salary cap to a higher number of top level players. For the $51.3 million the Lions committed to Suh, Johnson and Stafford in 2014, the Patriots endured the cap hits of quarterback Tom Brady, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo, cornerback Darrelle Revis, tight end Rob Gronkowski, safety Devin McCourty and had $4.1 million to spare.

In 2013 the average committed to a team's top three players was 24.6 percent, and in 2014 it was 24 percent.

In 2015, Johnson carries a cap hit of $20.6 million and Stafford's is $17.7 million. If the 2015 cap is $142 million as reports have suggested, those two would account for 27 percent of the Lions' cap next season.

Add $15 million or so for Suh, and the Lions will again eclipse the 30-percent mark. And if the Lions use the franchise or transition tag on Suh for $26.9 million, the trio would take 45.9 percent of the entire cap; however, the Lions could likely only afford Suh with restructures to Johnson's and/or Stafford's contract because they only have about $15 million of space if the 2015 cap is $142 million.

Still, this is why a tag simply isn't feasible for the Lions. The only scenario in which the Lions would use a tag is as a tool to buy more time to negotiate a long-term deal similar to Jimmy Graham and the Saints last offseason. New Orleans used the franchise tag on Graham last March before reaching a four-year, $40 million extension in July — the grievance of whether he was a tight end or receiver slowed the process, too.

But if the Lions do use the tag, there's no reason to think Suh and agent Jimmy Sexton would spend another second working on a long-term deal.

Making $26.9 million for one season would be a huge coup for Suh. For comparison's sake, last year's No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney's contract pays him just $22.3 million for four years, just another sign of how much the past collective bargaining agreement crushed the Lions for having a top-two pick in 2007, 2009 and 2010.

Consider briefly that the Rams were in the top four of cap commitments to their top three players in 2013 (second at 32.7 percent) and 2014 (fourth at 30.2 percent) as they were hamstrung by the contract of Sam Bradford, the oft-injured quarterback selected first overall ahead of Suh in 2010.

In addition to the substantial cash value, the tag would give Suh even more leverage for his next contract because it'd be hard to convince him to take such a significant pay cut for his remaining years. So, for the Lions, the tag makes no sense, and Suh would run from wherever he is to sign the dotted line if offered.

But the two prevailing thought processes surrounding Suh still have plenty of merit. And soon, we should know just how committed the Lions are to their star player and their salary cap constraints.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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